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Boston Officials Did Not Shut Down Cell Network After Marathon Bombing 211

Posted by timothy
from the no-good-answers dept.
An anonymous reader writes with this excerpt from Motherboard about the immediate aftermath of yesterday's bomb attack in Boston, which attempts to explain the (unsurprisingly) poor accessibility of the cellular network after the blasts: "Gut instinct suggests that the network must've been overloaded with people trying to find loved ones. At first, the Associated Press said it was a concerted effort to prevent any remote detonators from being used, citing a law enforcement official. After some disputed that report, the AP reversed its report, citing officials from Verizon and Sprint who said they'd never had a request to shut down the network, and who blamed slowdowns on heavy load. (Motherboard's Derek Mead was able to send text messages to both his sister and her boyfriend, who were very near the finish line, shortly after the bombing, which suggests that networks were never totally shut down. Still, shutting down cell phone networks to prevent remote detonation wouldn't be without precedent: It is a common tactic in Pakistan, where bombings happen with regularity.)"
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Boston Officials Did Not Shut Down Cell Network After Marathon Bombing

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  • by headhot (137860) on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @09:29AM (#43460655) Homepage

    Why the network operators didn't get requests to shutdown the network, that doesn't mean it wasn't jammed. The military has jammers it uses where they suspect IEDs to prevent triggering via the cell network. There is no reason why the BPD, DHS or other agency would not have jammers for such an occasion. I would be surprised if they did not with all the money that was thrown around after 9/11

    • by usuallylost (2468686) on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @09:35AM (#43460729)
      I am leaning toward the 50,000 people in the area all trying to call home at once.
      • by tedgyz (515156)

        Right. We had similar problems in DC during the Rally for Sanity.

        • by mrops (927562) on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @11:07AM (#43461973)

          In such emergencies, its better to use SMS than place a voice call.

          SMS rides on control signal and as long as your cell phone has a signal, it will get queued and delivered.

          Voice calls require acquiring of a dedicated voice channel, these are limited and overloaded in such emergencies.

          • by crakbone (860662) on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @11:53AM (#43462601)
            After Katrina I had a friend who was worried about their father and could not get through the cell network. I recommended SMS she got through but all he said was call me.
            • Lol. You have hit on one of my pet peeves.

              I don't know how many times people have left me voicemails that just said "call me". WTF???

              Um... duh. I kind of got the hint from the fact that THEY called ME, that they want to talk. It annoys me to no end when they don't say a thing about why. Listen, folks: that's what voicemail is FOR. Stop wasting bandwidth and my time. If all I want to know is that you want to talk, I can simply look at my phone log and see that you tried to call.
          • Awhile back, you would see disclaimers here and there saying "the reliability of SMS messaging should not be counted on in emergency situations" or something to that effect.

            But the opposite actually appears to be true, when the "emergency" is in an area where a lot of folks are trying to use their cell phones at the same time.
            During some weather catastrophes a few years back, I could not get a single call to go through on the biggest carrier in my area, but texts did go through successfully. It's just

          • by dcw3 (649211)

            Agreed. When the earthquake in Mineral, Virginia hit, I was standing with a group of about a hundred people outside. Very few were getting voice through, but text worked fine. It also didn't seem to matter who's network you were on.

      • by sycodon (149926)

        That's pretty much the definition of "jammed".

    • by MightyYar (622222) on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @09:35AM (#43460745)

      I was able to text back and forth with my niece, who was at the race. No idea what network she is on, though the interwebs say it is an AT&T number. I don't think things were being actively jammed.

    • by TheCarp (96830) <[ten.tenaprac] [ta] [cjs]> on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @10:05AM (#43461163) Homepage

      > There is no reason why the BPD, DHS or other agency would not have jammers for such an occasion.

      Really? And why should they? The entire idea that they should have them is based on specific technical details of specific attacks, and requires both that they guess right that its the right time to use them and that the bomb maker didn't anticipate their use.

      Additionally, with all the people involved, they generally want people to get the "Im safe" messages out, because it decreases overall mayhem and people trying to contact them for information.

      > I would be surprised if they did not with all the money that was thrown around after 9/11

      Well I wouldn't either, but, thats a different issue.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      when I worked in telecom, specing out a CO for site we would generally have enough T1's (24 full-duplex lines) to provide for 20% of the population as that would cover normal traffic at any one point in time. It was always known that during emergencies it would become overwhelmed and low priority calls (you and me) would fail while there are settings to allow high priority calls (emergency responders, police, government, etc) to drop a line in use by someone lower priority and go through.

      My bet, is the majo

    • by Applekid (993327)

      Why the network operators didn't get requests to shutdown the network, that doesn't mean it wasn't jammed. The military has jammers it uses where they suspect IEDs to prevent triggering via the cell network. There is no reason why the BPD, DHS or other agency would not have jammers for such an occasion. I would be surprised if they did not with all the money that was thrown around after 9/11

      So it's impossible to create a bomb that will detonate on loss of signal?

      The jammers aren't for preventing explosions. It's for preventing civilian communication. In case of insurrection.

  • by O('_')O_Bush (1162487) on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @09:30AM (#43460669)
    I would think that shutting down cell towers wouldn't be particularly effective, given that the same mechanism that would allow one to trigger a bomb with a cell phone is also present in other RF devices such as baby monitors and walkie-talkies.
    • by ZiakII (829432)
      It would not be hard at all to scramble everything. Just fly a Prowler [wikipedia.org] and you can pick and choose what frequencies we jam. It is what we do in Iraq with convoys most of the time.
      • I know they make jammers for these, I've worked on one, but that isn't what they are discussing here...
      • by TheCarp (96830) <[ten.tenaprac] [ta] [cjs]> on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @11:20AM (#43462161) Homepage

        Totally different threat profile.

        A convoy is moving and is a very small target in a very large area. It is especially exposed, and an especially juicy target in a war zone. You can expect attacks fairly frequently, they have to find you/be ready for you.

        This event is predefined, the attacker knows where and when the targets will be there. The attacker already has time to prepare and makes himself known on his time table.

        This changes everything. In your convoy for example, there is no benefit to rigging bombs to blow when their signal is jammed or even to arm in response to signals from a jammer.... as the prowler is not the convoy and need not be all that close to them, arming or blowing in response to the jammer means wasted bombs or blowing up innocent bystanders, will almost never hit a convoy.

        Here we have a totally different scenario. A secondary device triggered by a loss of signal could have huge impact. The devices are already at their pre-determined target. You don't jam, he can detonate, you do jam, they might detonate, point is....you have no way of ever knowing what he planned until its all over.

    • by dunezone (899268)
      But baby monitors and walkie-talkies can pick up interference and other communication which can cause the trigger to go prematurely. With a cell phone its waiting to receive a phone call so if no one knows the number its less likely to go off prematurely.
      • by MightyYar (622222)

        I was thinking about this yesterday... I'd be terrified that someone would call the wrong number or something. Or that it would give me some vibrating notification. Or that it would reboot and vibrate on wake. Nope, the life of a bomber is not for me!

      • I know it isn't as elegant, but I would think that given a choice between accidental detonation and loading the mechanism altogether with cell phones, the former would be most desirable.
      • by sycodon (149926)

        ... baby monitors and walkie-talkies can pick up interference and other communication...

        Even Aliens! [google.com]

      • by EvilSS (557649)
        Just hope that Rachel from card services doesn't pick an inappropriate time to call and help you lower your interest rates...
      • by havana9 (101033)
        You could also use selective calls or transmit a modulated signal to trigger the system. Or you can do exactly the reverse. I remember in the 80s a burglar alarm connected to a CB radio that sent every minute or so a coded signal with the meaning 'ALL OK'. The remote post had an alarm that was triggered either by the different message 'TRESPASSERS DETECTED' or after three minutes without having received any message. The control system was made without using a CPU but with TTL logic. If instead a lam and a
    • by egamma (572162)

      I would think that shutting down cell towers wouldn't be particularly effective, given that the same mechanism that would allow one to trigger a bomb with a cell phone is also present in other RF devices such as baby monitors and walkie-talkies.

      They could also set the bomb to trigger if it loses reception.

      • yes, generally the trigger is on a relay that's switched on and off by the phones speaker. The "lost signal" beep would like set it off without any extra effort at all. Then you have the fact that its just plain easier to use a cheap watch with an alarm on it.

        The fact of the matter is, no matter what you think of, there is no way to stop this sort of thing. They could have had concrete trash cans that direct blasts up, but then they just don't put them in the bins. Ban black powder, but then they just use s

        • by dgatwood (11270)

          Stop it, no, but they could have done a lot to mitigate it. The reasons people use trash cans for bombing are twofold:

          • Throwing something away isn't usually seen as suspicious behavior. It can therefore be done at any time.
          • Objects in a trash can are concealed by the trash can. People might be suspicious of a bag left behind, but not if they can't see it.

          There's a much better chance that the devices would have been discovered had the bomber(s) tried to leave something behind in a crowded public place. A

          • by Applekid (993327)

            This incident could have been substantially mitigated by removing or locking all trash cans on the street where spectators would be and placing the in-use trash cans fifty feet up the side streets, and a reasonable distance from where people would line up to get food from any food vendors. People might grumble about having to walk to throw things away, but had the trash cans been farther back, those bombs would have gone off almost harmlessly, with at most one or two people killed or injured, instead of killing three people and injuring almost two hundred.

            People wouldn't grumble about it, they'll just throw it on the street. Now instead of a suspicious bag hiding in a garbage can you have a suspicious bag hiding under any of a number piles of paper plates and napkin wads. Maybe it gets kicked around, too.

            • by dgatwood (11270)

              Most people don't litter, and the ones who do litter are likely to do so whether the can is twenty feet away or seventy.

      • Dangerous for the bombmaker and/or transporter, though.

        That's when dead zones are REAL dead zones!

    • by chill (34294)

      You're over-thinking things. All the trigger needs is an electrical pulse. Phones are frequently used because you can SET AN ALARM an it'll go off -- cell reception or not.

      That is the most common usage that I've read about when attacking events that can be easily timed and located.

      In the United States, the average finishing time for marathons in 2011 was 4:37 (10:34/mile pace), according to MarathonGuide.com. What time did the race start? Set the alarm for 4 1/2 hours later.

      Cell reception at the bottom of a

  • Overloaded (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @09:34AM (#43460715)

    After the Earthquake in Virginia in 2011, you couldn't make a cell call to save your life, since several million people picked up their phones within a few minutes of each other. Text messages went through fine within a half a minute or so. Something similar happens whenever an unexpected event of note happens anywhere.

    • Same thing in NYC when the earthquake hit - cell service was immediately overwhelmed. Even texts stopped working after a few minutes. Just too many people using their cells in a relatively small area.
    • And I don't think there is an engineering solution for it. It's a race condition... there will always be a bigger event that needs more capacity and you end up with a huge, costly network no one can afford to use and, even if everyone could afford it, would be have massive capacity.

      I think you wall off some capacity for emergency users (911, police, first responders) and do your best with the rest.

      • by rvw (755107)

        And I don't think there is an engineering solution for it. It's a race condition... there will always be a bigger event that needs more capacity and you end up with a huge, costly network no one can afford to use and, even if everyone could afford it, would be have massive capacity.

        I think you wall off some capacity for emergency users (911, police, first responders) and do your best with the rest.

        One solution would be to allow text/sms only. The phone keeps trying till it has delivered the message, it's small in size. You could even send all users a broadcast sms to let them know that.

        • by cdrudge (68377)

          Because that wouldn't overwhelm the control channels with even more traffic while not utilizing the voice/data channels at all. Great plan.

          • by Zorpheus (857617)
            Yes, a special emergency protocol would be good, that reserves most of the band with for SMS and emergency services. And of course for people who pay extra.
        • by tlhIngan (30335)

          One solution would be to allow text/sms only. The phone keeps trying till it has delivered the message, it's small in size. You could even send all users a broadcast sms to let them know that.

          You do realize that control channel overload is what causes the cell network to go down these days, right?

          When the control channel is overloaded, a phone can't make a voice of data call (requires using the control channel to select the appropriate voice or data channel and timeslot).

          Allowing text/sms only would work, b

      • I think you wall off some capacity for emergency users (911, police, first responders) and do your best with the rest.

        I agree, though there's some interesting ideas with having the phones themselves act as a mesh network to get information in/out of the affected area, but I'll point out that the military has been trying to institute something like that for decades with limited success. The idea is that a soldier's short range device hooks up with a nearby truck's, which relays it to another truck or plane that can relay it to the most appropriate ground station or satellite link. All dynamically.

        There has been some progr

    • by geekoid (135745)

      So now we know for a fact overloaded cell tower cause earthquakes~

  • All it would take is a text message instead of a phone call to detonate something.
  • I almost never use text messaging, but it is extremely useful when cell networks are overloaded as it uses almost no bandwidth and hence messages almost always get through. Unfortunately not many people think of it that way and tend to keep trying to make a voice call when the network is rejecting their attempts.
    • Another advantage of text messaging is that (most) phones will keep trying to send it every few minutes/seconds until it goes through, whereas voice requires you to keep trying manually. This, combined with the lower bandwidth requirements and less battery usage, are why they recommend sending texts if you're lost in the woods with little or no reception... it's much more likely to get through and much less likely to kill the battery. I use text messaging a lot at work just because signal is so poor inside

      • by afidel (530433) on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @10:56AM (#43461827)

        SMS actually take zero bandwidth on GSM networks, they use the ping packets that the phone must exchange with the tower every so often to send the message, it would otherwise be padded with zero's. That's why the message length on SMS is so short, it's limited by the difference between the header needed for a ping and the size of a timeslice. Some phones will opt to use the data network if available to ensure faster delivery but SMS was really a brilliant hack to take advantage of the nature of the network.

  • by nimbius (983462) on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @09:46AM (#43460925) Homepage
    that during an immediate crisis or disaster, cellular networks will become quickly overloaded. network providers acknowledge this and tout things like COW and COLT (Cellular on Wheels and Cellular on Light Truck) as a solution. what isnt clearly stated is that these systems may be hundreds of miles from the immediate area, or may rely on existing trunks and uplinks that are themselves completely saturated, if they havent been destroyed by $crisis || $disaster. cellular providers also have a terrible habit of booking these emergency systems for sporting events to augment their second rate cellular networks.

    For geeks who understand how cellular works its limitations are pretty obvious, so im seriously wondering if amateur radio played any part in assisting during this crisis?
    ham was designed from its inception to help in a civil emergency, and it would be hard to imagine an event like the boston marathon without at least one 2 meter or 6 meter general class or extra present.

    does boston use ASTRO? or EDACS radio networks for emergency services? if so how did these networks perform?
    • by geekoid (135745)

      I wouldn't be surprised if hams set up, but traffic cleared up pretty quickly, all things considered.

    • by cdwiegand (2267) <chris@wiegandfamily.com> on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @11:10AM (#43462037) Homepage

      They weren't activated, and the ones that were in use during the race (for coordination) were all evacuated and followed those orders (http://cqnewsroom.blogspot.com/2013/04/boston-marathon-update-all-hams.html)

      You're more likely to find hams helping in inter-departmental capacity, where large-scale (this was so not large scale) events require coordination between multiple police and fire departments, hospitals, etc. This was a local situation where Boston Police (and to a point DHS) were involved, but no other agencies - they can usually handle talking on their own radios to themselves.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Whether cell towers were working or not is a stupid thing to focus on, here. How about the coming absolute surrender of all remaining liberties? Since 9-11, I've repeatedly pointed out that all we need is one more big terrorist event to shake the population enough that we will give up everything. Complaits about the TSA, second amendment, privacy, government and corporate wiretapping without justification. All of it. It is over. We lose.by attacking us, we shell up. We take away our own freedomFOR them. It

    • by isorox (205688)

      Whether cell towers were working or not is a stupid thing to focus on, here. How about the coming absolute surrender of all remaining liberties? Since 9-11, I've repeatedly pointed out that all we need is one more big terrorist event to shake the population enough that we will give up everything. Complaits about the TSA, second amendment, privacy, government and corporate wiretapping without justification. All of it. It is over. We lose.by attacking us, we shell up. We take away our own freedomFOR them. It is time to shutter yro.slashdot, because it no longer matters.

      Has it actually been confirmed that this was actually a criminal event? There's too much speculation in the "news". I tuned out after one channel were saying "so they set off this bomb here, then people ran in this direction (drawing on screen like a football game), then the second bomb went off here, trapping them"

      There was 5 seconds between the blasts, and a video showing exactly what happened.

      As usual the news are bullshitting away to keep people tuned in.

  • by HeckRuler (1369601) on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @10:05AM (#43461171)

    So... considering that's we hear about this with EVERY major catastrophe, would this be the sort of national infrastructure concern that we would want to mandate that the cell companies install extra capacity? You know, in case of emergencies. Are we at the point that we can consider cellular connection, or generically wireless connection, to be a basic utility and not a cutting edge hip new ordeal that only the rich can afford?

    And hey, since they've got ALL THAT BANDWIDTH, just lying about in case shit hits the fan, it'd be great to sell it on the cheap. You know, that idea that society and the fundamental utilities is here to foster growth rather than wringing out the last coin from the customer's pockets.

    • by Dr. Evil (3501)

      "would this be the sort of national infrastructure concern that we would want to mandate that the cell companies install extra capacity? You know, in case of emergencies."

      In Canada a telco exec told me that the government mandates Bell to provide priority service to emergency responders' home landlines. It'd be interesting if telcos could register emergency responder's cells in a similar way. May or may not be technicallly possible with current technology, given all the phones are trying to reach the t

    • So... considering that's we hear about this with EVERY major catastrophe, would this be the sort of national infrastructure concern that we would want to mandate that the cell companies install extra capacity? You know, in case of emergencies. Are we at the point that we can consider cellular connection, or generically wireless connection, to be a basic utility and not a cutting edge hip new ordeal that only the rich can afford?

      How technically feasible is that?

      Scaling up landlines is (somewhat) straightforward - you install the copper wire, you add corresponding capability to upstream processing. Scaling up cell coverage/capability is not because cells are mobile. You might have an international event that causes a few streets to have 1000x the cell phone density as normal. How much are you paying for the extra cell phone capacity?

      Whether you feel cell phone technologies are a utility is irrelevant - the scaling issues a

  • Short memories (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MickyTheIdiot (1032226) on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @10:05AM (#43461173) Homepage Journal

    Uh.. doesn't this happen after just about every disaster?

    If you design the networks to work at the utilization that you see after a disaster there would be cell phone towers at every corner, our bills would be $500 or more a month, and it would be using a very low percentage of its capacity 99.99% of the time.

    It isn't what is important at the moment, anyway.

  • by sl4shd0rk (755837) on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @10:18AM (#43461299)

    I believe SMS piggy-backs on a transmission from the tower which is a different protocol than what is used for voice/data*. It seems possible that SMS may work when voice/data has been blocked.

    "transport messages on the signaling paths needed to control the telephone traffic during time periods when no signaling traffic existed. "

    [*] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Short_Message_Service [wikipedia.org]

  • VZW appeared heavily overloaded and calls were not going through. Additionally, text messages also appeared to be throttled or heavily delayed. If this was a result of jamming or some other technology to throttle the network, calls were being placed, they were not however providing audio. I received about 20 calls from my girlfriend who lives in the area and her calls were ringing through and "completing", but no audio was making it over the line. Calls I was placing appeared to ring through (five or six ri

    • by Beorytis (1014777)
      Not long after the bombings, I saw messages on twitter from local law enforcement encouraging people to text instead of call. "Less bandwidth" they said.
  • Given the situation I think shutting down the cell networks would have been reasonable. They shut them down for G20 meetings and various protests but not in the middle of a bombing incident where there's a good chance cellular detonators are being used? Huh?

    • by geekoid (135745)

      Becasue it was over.
      Plus, any response that is standard will be trivially worked around.

  • Dated information (Score:5, Informative)

    by Brucelet (1857158) on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @10:55AM (#43461799)
    I don't know for sure on cell service, but there's a whole lot of other outdated information in that article. Specifically, the fire at the jfk library is now known to be unrelated, and law enforcement officials have stated that no undetonated devices were found.
  • by isorox (205688) on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @11:03AM (#43461913) Homepage Journal

    * Media spouts a load of crap to get ratings
    * News at 11

    Oh wait, not news at 11, it's news all the time. Doesn't matter that there's nothing new to report, that it's all over, that it will takes days to get any more answer, we have to have wallpaper news because all the other stations are having it. Everyone's hoping for another 9/11.

    Oh how I wish for a return to a half hour news bulletin 3 times a day, when journalists had time to go out and find what's going on rather than sit in a studio doing two-ways, reading wires and copy that's come from the studio.

    That's enough from me standing outside an empty office block, back to you in the studio. I'll be here again in 15 minutes though for an update.

    • by steelfood (895457)

      You wouldn't believe the things some of these news shows were saying just to have something at all to say. And then they find some Tom, Dick, or Harry, with marginal relevance to the affair, and have that person speak gibberish for half an hour.

      These days, people want their information here, now, and in its entirety all at once. It is, quite frankly, an impossibility, especially for events that are so fresh, or incredibly complex. Yet, people want it, and so the news stations have to deliver to maintain the

  • Most cell towers have PRI lines that are dedicated for phone calls; it has a separate data connection for Internet and SMS transfers.

    SMS, data, and voice all need to deal with the problem of timing - many signals sent to the tower's receivers at once can interfere with one another. Time division can only account for data; SMS and voice both send at random times (meaning the timing of the call or message send).

    Having said that, some forms of TDMA have individual phones set up for only certain spots in the s

  • If you get everyone using their phone at the same time it will fall apart. They don't build the networks to handle everyone calling and texting at the same time. I doubt they can handle half the customer base for the city at once.

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